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The Dutch position on immigration, Islam and relations between the native population and immigrants is often misunderstood. The general picture in the foreign press is that the Netherlands once was the living embodiment of tolerance and multiculturalism, but after the murders of Pim Fortuyn (a Dutch politician) and Theo van Gogh (a filmmaker and writer) it changed into a country governed by polarization, xenophobia and assimilation. This picture does not reflect reality, but it is true that our views on immigration and integration have changed. In short, we have become more realistic.

We realized, for example, that our policy of having rules but not enforcing them properly attracted so many people that it could not go on. Our immigration levels had long outgrown the absorption capacity of our economy, our welfare system and the other institutions. Meanwhile, in the area of integration, our famous tolerance toward strangers was less of an ideal than we had once believed. Under the veil of tolerance, we neglected the too often marginal position of immigrants. The Dutch government's caretaker attitude of "taking by the hand and patting on the head" tended to stifle private initiative and did not stimulate newcomers to take personal responsibility for their lives and to engage with the wider society.

The Netherlands has dealt with a growing influx of asylum-seekers. For example, five years ago more than 40,000 arrived in a country of 16 million people over a 12-month period. We were not prepared for it. There were too many procedures, they were too complicated and they took too long. On April 1, 2001, we passed a new aliens act and now have a better, simpler and faster asylum procedure.

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Nevertheless, a large group of asylum-seekers who have exhausted all legal remedies are still in the Netherlands, and are subject to the old aliens act. We are doing our best to encourage their return to their country of origin. The humane return of aliens who are not lawfully residing in the Netherlands is an important priority in my policy. They can be people who live here illegally or asylum-seekers whose application has been considered and dismissed by way of a final court decision by an independent judge. Of course, we are very much in favour of voluntary repatriation and we actively stimulate this by individual supervision and financial support. Unfortunately, many aliens are unwilling to do so, in which case forced repatriation is required.

At the same time, I have introduced an admission scheme for highly qualified migrants. Decisions are made within two weeks after receiving the applications. About 2,500 highly qualified migrants have entered the Netherlands since the scheme was introduced in October of 2004. They are working primarily in management functions, in information technology, and as researchers. To become even more open to talented immigrants, the Dutch government has recently decided to introduce a points-based system for independent professionals, such as innovative entrepreneurs and creative artists.

There is also a demand for workers in the middle and lower echelons of the labour market. Most of these workers, however, are from Central European countries such as Poland that acceded to the European Union on May 1, 2004. The Dutch government intends to open the labour market for workers from the newly acceded countries on January 1, 2007.

Also, a growing number of international students have found their way into Dutch higher educational institutions and we want to facilitate the admission of these students from foreign countries, such as in East and Southeast Asia and in the near future also from Latin America.

Like many Western European countries, we have found out the hard way that integration places demands on both immigrants and society.

Now we want to encourage and stimulate people to take part in society; making it possible for them to really do so. It is taken as a given that participation in Dutch society requires immigrants to have a command of the Dutch language. The same holds for knowledge of basic norms and values and standards of citizenship. If you want to live in the Netherlands, you will need to live by these rules. This means inter alia: no discrimination, equal rights for men and women, and above all, no violence.

To help guarantee this, I have introduced a compulsory examination on these subjects for new and old immigrants. It includes a Dutch language test and a test on the social and cultural aspects of Dutch society. These measures are not taken against foreigners, they aim at challenging immigrants to make a real effort toward integration and helping them prepare adequately for life in the Netherlands. Integration is a two-way street.

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We are trying to bring people in the Netherlands closer to one another. "Binding," or what binds us together, is key. We must not look at our differences, but at what we share.

Using posters and ads throughout the country and a hip website (www.en.nl), the present government is emphasizing positive interaction between different cultures: from Turkish and Dutch entrepreneurs who start a business together, to homosexuals and Muslims who play football together. It is important that people also hear the good news.

We have about one million Muslims (6 per cent of the population) in the Netherlands - they are a diverse group and they play a substantial role in our society and economy. What we are trying to foster in the Netherlands is a form of Islam that accepts the living conditions of a modernized, secularized, individualized society. Sometimes, this can lead to charged and confrontational discussions. Where crimes are committed in the name of religion - honour killings, for example - the perpetrator is subject to the Dutch judicial system. In some situations, however, the line is much less clear.

Take the discussions around the head scarf and the burka: Does the wearing of a burka suggest repression of women? We are trying to strike a balance between freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and the sense of belonging in Dutch society. Neither head scarves nor burkas are banned across the board in the Netherlands. But the burka may be excluded as appropriate dress in some situations - such as at school, where it can hinder communication.

In our approach, dialogue is essential. Therefore, I have regular meetings with representatives of the Islamic community in the Netherlands. I also co-operate with Muslim organizations on various projects to strengthen integration and to prevent radicalization.

And since immigration and integration are not specific Dutch issues - nearly all Western countries face similar problems - it is important for us all to look beyond our borders and exchange experiences with one another.

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As I said, dialogue is essential, especially in this increasingly globalized world.

Rita Verdonk is the Dutch Minister for Immigration and Integration.

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